Jailhouse Rock (1957) Richard Thorpe

Many true heart Elvis fans consider “Jailhouse Rock” one of his best films. As a movie, I much prefer “King Creole” with its better cast, script, director and overall a better musical score. However, Elvis never looked as good as he did in “Jailhouse Rock,” young, sensuously dangerous, and still wildly untamed from what would soon become the chain around his neck, his manager Colonel Tom Parker.  It was only Elvis’ third film, first came “Love Me Tender,” a film already in the works at 20th Century Fox before Elvis came on board, and originally was going to be called “The Reno Brothers.” With Elvis’ involvement, the title was changed to one of his hit songs. The film starred Richard Egan and the lovely Debra Paget, Elvis’ credit read “introducing Elvis Presley.” It was a fairly typical low budget western except for the four songs tossed in for Elvis to sing, along with a bit of shaky legs, and some girls in the crowd giving in to some half hearted screams that all seemed totally inappropriate for the Civil War setting.  Then there is Elvis’ horrible death scene, a guilty pleasure all itself, his acting is just dreadful; I believe he really died here of embarrassment and not from the gunshot wound. His next film, “Loving You,” would in many ways mirror Elvis’ life up to that point, that of a young country boy who becomes a big time singing sensation.  The film was a step up from his first feature; it even had an older woman, film noir favorite Elizabeth Scott, getting the hots for the young rock and roller. Still it was all very wholesome, even had Elvis’ mama in the audience for one scene while he is on stage singing, “Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do,” and his true love in the film was the virginal and future real life nun, Dolores Hart.  

At this point in his rising career, Elvis was still jumping from one studio to another, each one trying to cash in on his popularity. MGM came next with the first of only two films where Elvis portrayed anything near a juvenile delinquent. In “Jailhouse Rock,” he is Vince Everett, a young punk who accidently beats a man to death with his fists after the guy starts to smack around a woman he thinks was flirting with Vince. Vince is sentenced to 1 to 10 years in the state prison where he meets Huck (Mickey Shaughnessy), a former Country and Western singer now doing his longest gig in the pen. Huck hears the kid sing, recognizes his talent and teaches him to play the guitar. The prison soon holds a talent show (don’t they all?) that is going to be broadcast on national television no less. Vince’s performance has hundreds of teen girls sending fan letters to their jailbird idol, letters that Huck, who practically runs the prison, manages to intercept and hide from Vince. Hard time goes by, you can tell this by the close up of a hand crossing out the dates on a wall calendar, how visually clever. Vince receives an inexplicable early release, surprising since he has turned into an arrogant, aggressive bastard. It can be assumed this personality change is suppose to be one of rebellion in the James Dean/Marlon Brando sensitive rebel without a cause tradition however, Vince just come across as a unlikeable boorish jerk who hates and resents everyone, even those who want to help him.         

Old Huck, who still had some connections on the outside, arranges for Vince to get a job at some dive night club where he hopes to sing but the owner only agrees to give him a job bartending. At the club he meets a gorgeous young music rep, Peggy, portrayed by Judy Tyler (1), who despite his nasty demeanor, agrees to help him record a couple of demos and shop them around to the record companies. With no bites, they decide to start their own record company. Their first record takes off and soon the money starts rolling in, which is all Vince really wants. He again appears on TV, this time in a variety show special which includes the now legendary “Jailhouse Rock” number Elvis apparently choreographed himself. Just like with Elvis himself, Hollywood soon comes a knockin’ for Vince, however success has not eased his surly behavior. Peggy for some inexplicable reason continues to have a crush on the rocker but Vince’s only attraction is to the green bucks that are rolling in, and to a few blonde bimbos hanging on his arm. When Vince hurts sweet Peggy one time too many, Huck, who after being released from prison became a gofer for Vince, can’t take it anymore and decides to teach Vince a lesson in humility by punching him out. Unfortunately, one punch lands on Vince’s larynx. He is quickly rushed to the hospital where it is touch and go as to whether he will ever be able to sing again. Peggy and Huck are by his bedside.

Huck begs for forgiveness, he didn’t mean to hurt the kid, just wanted to knock some sense into him. Huck breaks down crying, burying his head on Vince’s chest.  Vince, Christ like in his forgiveness, touches Huck’s head as if he is almost giving him a blessing (“You are forgiven, my son”). Vince has also had a grand revelation about Peggy, they hold hands, she promises to be there for him.

The doctors give Vince a clean bill of health. There is no medical reason he cannot sing but Vince is afraid he won’t sound the same and in some of the most unbelievable emoting ever put on celluloid Elvis, I mean Vince attempts to sing, hesitantly at first, but soon he is belting out “Young and Beautiful” with Peggy lovingly at his side.    

A weak script, poor direction and a leading man who still was discovering his way in front of the camera, “Jailhouse Rock” had the making of a complete bomb. Yet, Elvis is charismatic, somehow rising above it all. The film’s highlights are mostly musical. Some of the songs are rather drab, though not as bad as some future tunes in much worst films with no pleasures of any sort, that would come later. The “Jailhouse Rock” number, one of his greatest rock and roll records, is the highlight. There is also a nice alternate rendition, (I actually like this version more the record, it has more bite) of “Treat Me Nice,” with the great songwriter Jerry Leiber (2) on the piano and Scotty Moore on guitar.

Then there is Elvis’ character who is a creep and not the sensitive James Dean rebel type. There is nothing likable about Vince other than he’s a young, virile looking Elvis. That of course was enough for his fans and the film made millions while costing MGM about thirty five cents (3).

That all said, “Jailhouse Rock” is one of my favorite Elvis movies, one of the few I can still actually sit through. It has nothing to do with the story or the filmmaking, it all about Elvis. He personified 1950’s cool in this film, his hair, the clothes, the turned up collar. Look at Elvis here and you realize how far he had fallen later on with those Las Vegas jumpsuits and fried banana sandwiches that helped filled them out. Here’s the rockin’ rebel singing a snappy devilish version of “Treat Me Nice” and rocking hard with “Jailhouse Rock.” I sit through the film just to watch all this and cringe at the rest.

 

Notes:

(1) Sadly, Judy Tyler died in a car accident, along with her husband, three days after the shooting of “Jailhouse Rock.” Prior to the film, Tyler played Princess Summerfall Winterspring for two years on the 1950’s children show, “Howdy Doody.” Tyler was twenty five at the time of her death. It has been written that Elvis was so devastated by her death he never watched, “Jailhouse Rock” again.

(2) Songwriter Jerry Leiber, half of one of the greatest rock and roll songwriting teams, prior to Lennon/McCartney, passed away on August 22nd this year at the age of 78. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote many of Elvis’ early great songs including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Hound Dog,” “Loving You,” “Don’t” and “King Creole.” The prolific team also wrote or co-wrote such great songs for other artists including “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King, John Lennon), “On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby” (The Drifters), “Love Potion No. 9” (The Clovers), “Kansas City” (Wilbur Harrison), “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Yackety Yak,” “Youngblood”  (The Coasters) and “Spanish Harlem” (Ben E. King)  among many others.             

 

(3) Oddly, when “Jailhouse Rock” opened in New York, it opened only at one theater, the Loew’s Metropolitan, in Brooklyn. The Metropolitan was one of Brooklyn’s premier theaters at the time still, it was a strange release pattern and unlike “Love Me Tender” which opened at the Paramount on Broadway.  It wasn’t until a week or two later the film opened in many theaters across the city including the Victoria theater on Broadway. Playing with the Elvis film was a second feature called, “Action of the Tiger” which starred Van Johnson and 1950’s French sex symbol, Martine Carol. Of more interest is that way down in the credits was a young Scotsman who would become one of the 1960’s best known stars and sex symbol, a young Sean Connery. The film was directed by Terence Young who would go on to direct “Dr, No.”

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34 comments on “Jailhouse Rock (1957) Richard Thorpe

  1. Rick29 says:

    John, I’m not an Elvis fan…and I still thoroughly enjoyed your review! I also realized for the first time that that a guilty pleasure of mine–1977’s OUTLAW BLUES with Peter Fonda–borrowed big chunks of its plot from JAILHOUSE ROCK (though the tone is decidedly different). I think that, among Elvis’s films, JAILHOUSE ROCK was the one that fit him best. Even its over-emotional scenes matched Elvis’s tendency (especially in later years) to give over-the-top concert perfromance. By the way, I also appreciated your insights on Elvis’s other films. A well-done review (as always).

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    • John Greco says:

      Rick, thanks very much. While I like Elvis to a certain extent, mostly his early raw Sun recordings and some of his early RCA stuff. He, in my humble opinion is a pretty good blues singer. But most of his later work is as you mention over the top, over produced and pure Las Vegas glitz. I’ll have to check out OUTLAW BLUES, I have heard of it but never got to see it.

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  2. Page says:

    Hi John,
    It’s fitting to have an Elvis vehicle during a Guilty Pleasures Blogathon. I guess I never found Elvis that great of an actor so watching him play the brooding bad boy in JR was a bit painful. Although, I didn’t see it as a teen during Elvis’s popularity so I imagine the viewing experience would have been a lot different during the period that it was released, surrounded by screetching Elvis fans. Even at the expense of being considered a caricature of Brando or Dean. Both my aunt and my mother were fortunate enough to see Elvis in his younger days then later in Vegas which makes me a bit jealous as anyone would be blessed to have witnessed either appearance. A beautiful voice and a charisma that can never be duplicated.

    My favorite Elvis film is “Change of Habit”, perhaps because he played a likable guy and the film had that ‘feel good’ story line. Then there was his chemistry with MTM who was so darn likable as the nun.

    Your reviews are always a great read John, as I appreciate your honest take on film as well as your interesting trivia.
    Thanks for another great review,
    Page

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Page,

      Elvis’ talents as an actor are limited or at least he was never given the chance to do something solid to prove himself. To be fair, here was a young poor kid from Tupelo who got lucky and is suddenly put in a movie and told he has to act. As his career progressed he at least seem to become more comfortable with himself on screen, though the films just got worst. I do remember reading somewhere that offers were made for him to star in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, in the Jon Voight role (now that would have been a career changer), and also in A STAR IS BORN with Streisand. The last one failed to materialize because they could not reconcile who would get top billing. I am sure it was his manager the “Colonel” who did not let the deals go through.

      Thanks for the kind words!

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      • stefmagura says:

        I read somewhere that Elvis wanted to play Tony in Westside Story, but the Colonel didn’t let it happen. Apparently, Elivs never forgave him for that. I can’t remember the source.

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      • John Greco says:

        Have not heard about WEST SIDE STORY but the “Colonel” was a control freak and put the breaks on a lot of projects that apparently would of been good for Elvis’ career. The “Colonel” was only it in for the money.and control. Welcome and thanks for your input.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    A most comprehensive piece here John. I agree that KING CREOLE is a stronger film on balance, but as you rightly note, the King’s charisma and musical genius overcomes the deficiences. We are big Elvis fans in this house and even own Stern’s ELVIS pinball machine, which first appeared four years ago.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Sam,

      I always favored Elvis’ early work more than his 60’s and 70’s though admitted there are buried treasures here and there. Thanks again my friend!

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  4. whistlingypsy says:

    John, I enjoyed reading your entertaining and informative review; the background on both the music and performers is especially intriguing. My image of Elvis is, perhaps unfairly, influenced by his later persona as the jumpsuit wearing, Vegas lounge performer. I agree with you he had an extraordinary voice and could have made a fine blues singer, too often overshadowed with the focus on rock ‘n’ roll. I seem to recall the singer expressed a desire to be taken seriously as an actor (assuming he understood his limitations), but I have never considered watching one of his films. Your description of Jailhouse Rock reminds me of the Gene Krupa Story with Sal Mineo, making allowances for some good music the story just isn’t there.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much. I disliked Elvis’ Las Vegas period too. It personified everything I dislike about Las Vegas, the glitz, the excess, Wayne Newton and Celine Dion. Your “Gene Krupa Story” comparison is accurate, poor story, good music. Thanks again!

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  5. Brandie says:

    I have never seen an Elvis film. *gasp* I’ve actively avoided them; while there are certain songs of his that I enjoy, the entire cult of Elvis has always been a little disturbing to me. In clips I’ve seen, Elvis looks kind of uncomfortable as an actor. But reading this review makes me think I should re-evaluate my stance and actually check out Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. What an entertaining read!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Brandie,

      King Creole, Jailhouse Rock are good places to start. Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel is also worth watching. Unfortunately, he made a lot of real junk with no redeeming value.

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  6. FlickChick says:

    I am currently having a love affair with Elvis and this is one of my favorites (the other being “Viva Las Vegas” – talk about guilty pleasures!). It’s amazing, but as the years go by, Elvis looks better and better. He had it all. Too bad the movies weren’t great (but they weren’t that bad, either).

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    • John Greco says:

      Flick Chick, thanks for stopping by. VIVA LAS VEGAS is really another guilty pleasure for me. Something to do with Ann-Margret who was one of the few co-stars who could match Elvis. Thanks!

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  7. Kim says:

    Interesting take on this film, John. One of my favorite places in America to visit is Memphis, Tenn. As such, I have been to Graceland more times than one should admit. I actually go to eat at the original Corky’s BBQ and to have a great time on Beale St., but I enjoy the Elvis connection as well. I think Jailhouse Rock is one of the King’s better pictures–granted, this isn’t saying much–but I definitely see why you think it is less than stelllar. You are right about the musical numbers, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Treat Me Nice” are both are iconic Elvis performances. I enjoyed reading your asides, too.

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    • John Greco says:

      Kim, – I am on board with you. Elvis’ movie career was poor and there were a lot of “what could have beens” and “ifs” had he been managed by someone who cared about his talent and not just cashing in. Thanks very much for the kind words.

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  8. DorianTB says:

    John, another terrific blog post, as always! I think Elvis Presley’s gorgeous singing voice and his stage/screen presence carried him a long way in JAILHOUSE ROCK and other films. I truly think that Elvis’ life would have changed for the better had he been able to get out from under Colonel Tom Parker’s thumb. If only he’d been willing and able to surround himself with people who truly had his best interests at heart, instead of a bunch of short-sighted yes-men who were only interested in keeping him placated! If so, his life would have improved in myriad ways, including being able to spread his acting wings. Too bad, because by all accounts, Elvis was a decent but insecure guy who just needed decent people to keep him on the straight and narrow.

    Ironically, I’m more of a Beatles fan than an Elvis fan, but I always thought Elvis had a great voice and a kind heart despite being manipulated to a fare-thee-well. What a shame about Judy Tyler and her husband, too. Excellent post, John, with much food for thought!

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    • John Greco says:

      Dorian, I agree, the Colonel did not care about nuturing Elvis’ career only cashing in on it. That and too many hanger on’s who yes’d him to death. He might have attempted more serious roles if more caring people were behind him.

      I too am more of a Beatles fan and I will tell you a secret (LOL). Later this week I will have a post up over at the Wonders in the Dark blog about a Beatles movie which is part of a musical countdown they are doing over there.

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  9. ClassicBecky says:

    Good choice, John. Terrible movie, fun to watch, but a crummy movie that has one absolutely fabulous thing, to me at leasts — the Jailhouse Rock number. I love that, the choreography, the black and white look, all just fantastic. Whenever the movie is on , I wait for the number and then turn if off! I saw the whole thing once, and once was enough. Reallyl enjoyable post!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Becky, – The JAILHOUSE ROCK number is classic and, at least for me, the TREAT ME NICE number is good too. Other than that, Elvis looks good and act badly. Yet if you compare it to later films he made (GI BLUES, DOUBLE TROUBLE, KISSIN COUSINS, EASY COME, EASY GO, TICKLE ME, SPINOUT and too many others to name) with a few exceptions (FLAMING STAR, FOLLOW THAT DREAM) it is one of his better films, which is not saying much. His best, at least for me, is KING CREOLE directed by Michael Curtiz. He had a decent script and a good cast in that one.

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  10. Kevin Deany says:

    I like this one too, especially because that title number is so good. “King Creole” or “Kid Galahad” might be better movies, but if you want to show someone the magic of Elvis, this is a good place to start.

    I didn’t know that about Judy Tyler. How sad.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Hey Kevin,

      In addition to the two you mention, FLAMING STAR is an overall better film too and you could add FOLLOW THAT DREAM, a comedy. VIVA LAS VEGAS is better than most of what followed in the 60’s because he had Ann-Margret in it as his co-star. Thank you for stopping by.

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  11. Terrific choice! You did a great job of describing why it’s a guilty pleasure. Elvis is so charismatic, even without the acting skills. And the title number is a knockout.

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  12. The Lady Eve says:

    Hi, John – I’ve never thought Elvis quite “discovered his way in front of a camera” as far as movies were concerned, but do think you picked one of his more watchable efforts. “King Creole” is the only one I’ve seen more than once, but it’s been a while. It has always seemed to me that after “E” went into the Army/lost his mother/fell in love with a 14-yr. old (Priscilla), something changed – and not for the better.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your take on “Jailhouse Rock” and Elvis’s movies. To be honest, though, whenever TCM has an Elvis day, I’m gone.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Eve,

      I have been waiting for someone to say what you did about never thinking Elvis quite discovered his way in front of a camera in movies (LOL). I always thought he had some potential which he was never given the opportunity to explore. Anyway, I don’t really watch his films anymore with the rare exception, like you of KING CREOLE, and this one. Even the rare two or so other films that I feel are watchable, I have not looked at in many years. Thanks!

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  13. Elvis was a phenomenon. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest actor (well, maybe not maybe), but he had PRESENCE. It sounds a bit daring for a film to make its lead character such an unappealing jerk, especially since Elvis was still so early, but it says a lot about Elvis’ charisma that audiences came anyway and made the film a hit. Thanks for your excellent post!

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      GOM,

      Good point. At that time in his career he could have played a doorstop and got away with it. He was charismatic for sure. As i said in some earlier comments, possibly with some good training and the right roles he could have become a decent actor. His biggest problem were the vultures that he surrounded himself with.

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  14. Then there is Elvis’ horrible death scene, a guilty pleasure all itself, his acting is just dreadful; I believe he really died here of embarrassment and not from the gunshot wound.

    Best laugh I’ve had all week.

    We disagree on our favorite Elvis movie (I prefer Flaming Star to King Creole, a film I’ve just never warmed up to) but I’m in solidarity that Jailhouse Rock is one of Elvis’ best pictures. Once you get past Elvis’ character being a total jackass, the supporting cast is sensational and El has some good tunes in this one, including one of my favorites “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care).” As always, John…a great review packed with wit and wisdom.

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  15. Judy says:

    Enjoyed your review a lot, John, but it gives me a bit of a pang to think of this as a guilty pleasure – to me it is a not so guilty one, and the best Elvis movie of those I’ve seen so far! Although parts of the movie are ridiculous, I must say I think some other parts are great – not only the iconic Jailhouse Rock dance number, but also the scene where Elvis sings in the bar and is ignored and talked over by the other diners. Elvis has several good songs in the movie, I quite like the other singer in the jail, Mickey Shaughnessy, as well. There’s some sharp dialogue too – I was struck by a chilling moment where Mickey tells Elvis in the jail “Do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it to them first”.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Judy, Sorry to give you a ‘pang’ (LOL) but for me, at least, except for the music numbers, JAILHOUSE ROCK, TREAT ME NICE and BABY, YOU’RE SO SQUARE in particular, the film and Elvis’ acting is on the wrong side town. He looks great and actually the line you mention at the end of you comment is one of the really good ones in he film. It is better than most of his films but boy, some of his later films are way, way down in the sub-basement. I love the film for the music and Elvis’ cool 50’s look but it seems to be one of those films that could have been so much better if the filmmakers cared. Thanks again for your thoughts. Always appreciate it.

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  16. joão carlos gonçalves says:

    WE ELVIS FANS FROM THE FIFTIES WENT TO THE MOVIE HOUSE TO SEE ELVIS SINGING, WE DID NOT CARE ABOUT THE PLOT LINE. HE WAS SUPERB!

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